What is a skeptic?

A skeptic is ‘seeker of the truth; an inquirer who has not yet arrived at definitive conclusions‘ (Oxford English Dictionary)

Skepticism is ‘the first step on the road to philosophy’ (Diderot) and ‘the mark and even the prose of the educated mind‘ (John Dewey).

Do I ‘believe in UFOs’?

The key question that frequently crops up when I do media interviews about the MoD files and UFOs in particular is always a variation of: “Do you believe in UFOs?“.

Usually, they don’t mean “do you believe that people see objects in the sky they can’t identify?” (to which the answer is most certainly ‘yes’) What they are really asking is: “Do you believe we are being visited by aliens in flying saucers?“. The question is therefore about faith, not about evidence.

Carl Sagan had something suitably insightful to say about this. He wrote: “I’m always struck by how the question is phrased, the suggestion that this is a matter of belief and not evidence.

So – assuming it matters to anyone (it obviously matters to journalists!) – what do I believe? Well, I think there’s every chance there is life elsewhere in the universe. This is suggested by the recent discoveries of planets circling around distant stars, and the presence of water on Mars. This is also a view shared by many astronomers, particularly those such as Paul Davies associated with the SETI programme who, as  a byproduct of their public statements, have tended to encourage the public to believe in the existence of intelligent aliens.

However, there is a great and significant difference between ‘life’ and ‘intelligent life’. Intelligent life that would be recognised by us and that happened to co-exist with the human race at the right moment in the vastness of the universe?

Most scientists agree that the appearance of intelligent life on Earth was the result of chance and an incredible series of circumstances that might be unique to our planet and solar system. What are the chances, then, that intelligent life has evolved elsewhere, and what’s more that it has been able to visit us frequently and surreptitiously, for thousands of years, evading detection in the last 50 years by our powerful radars and telescopes?

So although opinion polls suggest that between one third and one half of the population “believe we have been visited” – the evidence that aliens have come here in UFOs or flying saucers is actually slim or non-existent.

Like it or not, belief in aliens and UFOs is a modern myth. Myth does not mean that something is false, although this incorrect usage of “myth” is often employed by journalists and leads many people to believe that myth = falsity.

In fact, myth is defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as: “a traditional narrative sometimes popularly regarded as historical but unauthenticated.”

As a) many people believe UFOs are of alien or supernatural origin and b) there is no evidence or proof to support that view, it cannot be disputed that UFOs are, to paraphrase Carl Jung, a modern myth.

Furthermore, just because lots of people say they believe in something, doesn’t make that something objectively real. If it did then we would, for instance, be obliged to accept that the Devil and the Satanic pact with witches was real, simply because thousands of people believed that particular myth during the Middle Ages.

Am I working for/paid by MI5 (British Security Service)?

Some of the more paranoid UFOlogists believe that the views I express on this subject are not really my own. They believe I am being secretly paid by the spooks to ‘hide the truth’ about the alien presence on Earth.  Why else would I go to such lengths to debunk UFO incidents?

It should be obvious to anyone who actually troubles themselves to read my literary output that I have been writing about and actively researching a wide range of supernatural phenomena and belief for the past 30 years, as a journalist and full-time writer. My views on UFOs and the alleged ‘government cover-up’ have evolved during that period as a direct result of my extensive fieldwork and research, examples of which can be seen on my website. I do not set out to ‘debunk’ anything; I follow the trail of the evidence and draw conclusions based upon what the evidence suggests, not what I would like to believe. I am skeptic, not a debunker. I remain open minded about the possibility of supernatural or extra-terrestrial phenomena, but I have yet to see any evidence.  But that is beside the point; my interest as a folklorist lies in why people believe and experience such phenomena, not whether they are ‘true’ or ‘false’.

Quite why anyone would want to pay me to express views that I already hold is an idea that is interesting in itself, but says more about the people making the claims than it does about the real world.

Identifying critics as ‘enemies’ and labelling them as part of some conspiracy involving the government or scientific community is a character trait of those who promote pseudo-scientific theories. Ironically David Colquhoun, who runs the successful DC’s Improbable Science blog that exposes medical quackery, is frequently accused of being secretly paid by the pharmaceutical industries. So this type of nutty and non-falsifiable claim is actually quite common. My view is that it is the last resort of charlatans who are unable to articulate any kind of argument based upon sound logic and science. Evidently, if you don’t agree with them you must be working for ‘the Government’.

Are the MoD files released by The National Archives just a whitewash? And are there other ‘Top Secret’ files on UFOs being hidden by the British government?

True believer UFOlogists like Stanton Friedman, Nick Pope and Tim Good have made a career out of claims that the US and other governments are with-holding secret documents that prove the existence of alien visitors.

The release of the entire surviving archive of British Ministry of Defence UFO files demonstrates this is not the case, in the UK at least. It is true that many are missing. But these were created before 1962 and were destroyed decades ago. This is not evidence of a cover-up. The destruction happened because the MoD’s record staff regarded UFO reports as “trivia” that was of no historical interest and unworthy of preservation.

The only documents that have survived destruction, that were originally classified as “Secret” or “Top Secret” by British intelligence agencies are:

(1) the minutes and report produced by the Flying Saucer Working Party for the DSI/JTIC in 1951.  The DSI/JTIC minutes were classified ‘Top Secret’ and the working party’s brief, six-page report was ‘Secret – Discreet’. I obtained the release of this document in 2001 after tracking it down to the MoD archives (initially I was told it had been destroyed). This report was used to brief Prime Minister Winston Churchill following a ‘flap’ of UFO sightings in Washington DC in the summer of 1952. The DSI/JTIC report concluded that all sightings could be explained as misidentifications of known phenomena, optical illusions and hoaxes and that no further work should be done on the subject until some solid evidence was produced.

(2) a summary of a longer report produced by the intelligence section of the Air Ministry in 1955 and published in AMSIS (Air Ministry Secret Intelligence Summary). The original report (now lost) ran to 20,000 words and was classified ‘Secret – UK Eyes Only’. This concluded that 90% of all reports received, if investigated before the scent went cold, could be explained. The remaining 10% were unidentified but not evidence of ET visitors or foreign aircraft.

(3) the report produced for the MoD by DI55 in 2000 (known as the Condign report), classified as ‘Secret – UK Eyes Only’. I discovered the existence of this 4 volume report in 2004 and obtained a full copy in the following year, using the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). This said the unexplained residue were most likely to be caused by natural phenomena such as ball lightning and atmospheric plasmas that are not fully understood. The author concluded there was nothing of defence intelligence interest in reports of Unidentified Aerial Phenomena (UAPs) and MoD accepted his recommendation that no further sightings should be collected or investigated by DI55.

Despite their former “secret” status, we now have copies of these documents, apart from the longer version of the AMSIS study.

Fact: They do not contain evidence or proof that we have been visited by aliens, as many UFOlogists once believed.

Apart from references to classified UK Air Defence subjects such as aircraft and radar performance there are no other British documents on the subject of UFOs that are being with-held by the MoD or other agencies.

This does not satisfy some commentators who have already made up their mind that our government has hard evidence of ET visits and is conspiring to hide it from the public.

They are disappointed by the content of the MoD files and are growing tired of seeing tedious bits of paper containing reports of lights in the sky. Where is the hard evidence and photographs showing ‘structured craft of unknown origin’ that would provide clear and unambiguous evidence of the ET presence on Earth?  The evidence we’ve been told the Government has on file, but isn’t sharing because we would all panic?

Well, there can only be two answers.

Either this evidence isn’t in the files because no such evidence exists, or they have been removed by the global conspiracy to hide the truth and salted away somewhere else. This answer is unprovable and takes us nowhere – only into the realms of paranoia.

The answer has to be that no such unambiguous evidence exists. The file contents make it clear MoD’s interest in UFOs was purely from a defence perspective. They simply checked to see if sightings reported to them have any “defence significance” (i.e. are they hijacked aircraft, spy planes, enemy missiles?).

When those possibilities are ruled out, the reports were simply filed away and forgotten – as anyone can now see from the contents of the released files. Unfortunately, MoD are not funded to scrutinise their UFO reports for their scientific content. They say they remain open-minded about the possibility that ET life might exist, only they have never found any evidence to support the theory.

After 60 years collecting reports of UFO sightings they failed to discover any evidence either of ET visitations or a threat to defence. So in November 2009 they decided to discontinue their focal point for collecting reports (the famous ‘UFO desk’ once inhabited by Nick Pope) and draw a line under their involvement in the subject.

My opinion is that any genuinely open-minded person who spends a few hours skimming through the contents of the files accumulated over the past 50-60 years can only agree with the MoD’s conclusions. 90% or more of the reports they received could be explained (if they had bothered to investigate them). The few that remain might be unidentified but unidentified does not mean ‘extraterrestrial’.

Of course conspiracy mongers will continue to claim these papers are a whitewash and the real top secret files are being hidden away somewhere else. But you cannot have a rational argument with people who have preconceived ideas about cover-ups and conspiracies. Furthermore, you cannot prove a negative.

As anthropologist Charles Ziegler put it:

“Can UFOlogists define the nature of the government evidence they would be willing to accept as conclusive proof that there was no cover-up, no alien visitation?  The answer, I believe, is no because any such evidence can be regarded as an element of a further cover-up. In other words…the myth will live on, partly because it is unfalsifiable – an attribute that it shares with the central myths of most theologies – and partly because it serves various functions for those who claim to find it credible.”

(Saler, Ziegler and Moore, UFO Crash at Roswell, 1997)

2 Responses to FAQs

  1. Mike P. says:

    Very cogent argument. Unfortunately, your line, “…you cannot prove a negative,” goes both ways. Those who don’t “believe” can no more prove that we’ve *not* been visited as the ‘believers” can prove we have. (Just as atheists can not prove God doesn’t exist.) If we’ve recorded only white swans for 1000 years, it still doesn’t prove there are no black ones.
    And for some, even if an alien ship were to land on top of Parliament, it would be dubbed an elaborate hoax of some kind. So the extremists on either side will ever be truly satisfied.

    And that’s what makes it fascinating (if not flat out fun) for many of us.

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